XVI is not a feminist novel.
I’m opening my review with this caveat because, as someone who owns a dog-eared copy of The Feminine Mystique, whose heroes are Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, and who has, at times, stopped shaving her armpits (sometimes one just can’t be bothered), accounts of feminist content in Julia Karr’s debut were definitely a selling point for me.
The premise of XVI initially make it sound as if it has feminist potential. In the near-future, girls are allowed to have sex on their sixteenth birthdays; at this time, they’re tattooed with the roman numerals “XVI” on their wrists to advertise their sexual availability. In public, they’re sexually harassed, raped, and assaulted, but in private, lower class women are expected to maintain their purity so that they might be elected to serve as female companions to high ranking men on colonies out in space, a career move that their government promises will elevate their families above their impoverished origins.
Although this is, undeniably, a discussion of the dual pressures that young girls face in our society both to be sexual and remain pure, the ultimate conclusions of XVI seems to be little more than tut-tutting about the sluttiness of teens. And therein lies the problem with this sort of narrative—too much of a focus on the evils of sexuality; the animalistic, uncontrollable urges of men; and the goodness of girls who choose to abstain—particularly when it’s aimed at teens. Readers are left with something that’s no better than a fifties morality tale where our intrepid heroine ends up pregnant, destitute, or dead—all because she chooses to have sex. In this way, XVI sets up a false dichotomy for girls: “defend” your virginity, and have depth, and don’t die (or have lighter fluid poured on your face, and be set on fire), or be a shallow, mindless “sex-teen” who wears revealing clothing, enjoys flirting, and ultimately bites it in the end.
The only hint at complexity here is during a scene where the main character, Nina, realizes that—oh, my my!—she might actually enjoy having sex. I had hopes that this would lead to some discussion of healthy and safe ways for teens to explore their sexuality, but instead, she’s relieved of the possible burden of doing it when Sal tells her that he doesn’t want her to be a “sex-teen” either. Phew! All this would be fine, except there’s no hint of the real, myriad joys of sex, or how a teenager can keep herself safe while exploring her sexuality in this world. (Any way I can get an old copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves packaged with this book? I feel like we’ve fallen so far since the nineteen seventies.)
So, no, XVI is not a feminist book. But it did have something going for it: the characters. Nina and her friends were, without exception, well-rendered and interesting. More, they were incredibly true-to-life. Even Sandy, Nina’s sex-teen friend with whom she has a somewhat combative relationship, was sympathetic; their complicated friendship reminded me of fading friendships I shared with other girls as a teenager. And Nina has two male friends—Mike and Derek—real, platonic friends who act like real, messy boys. I can’t recall any YA novel I’ve read lately that’s done guy friends nearly so well.
Karr has significant room to grow on a prose and pacing level. But her approach to teenagers is still excellent, despite my feminist reservations about her chosen themes. There’s promise here, undeniably—even though XVI was sort of a hammy, poorly-conceived outing, I’ll be keeping an eye out for Karr’s future works.